Big Buddha, Big Bucks

Buddhist temples are beautiful places to visit, richly decorated with motifs that once decoded, can offer the viewer deep insight into the religion’s philosophy. Many temples also offer skills workshops– in Japan, some workshop Zazen, the origin of Zen meditation. Many temples offer martial arts instruction, Kung Fu, Karate and Ninjitsu can all be learned at temples. The beauty and the education are the main draw cards for visitors who in turn make generous donations, which in Asia is increasingly creating a much debated paradox for an essentially anti-materialist religion.

A grand Buddhist temple in Thailand

By way of example, New Year’s Day for many of Asia’s Buddhist families is not complete without a visit to the local shrine to usher in good fortune. To understand this better, in 2003 when I lived in Tokyo, I visited the elaborately decorated Meiji Shrine to witness literally millions of people surge toward the temple house to ring in the new year. On an ordinary day a simple wooden box sits at the front of a shrine to accept donations. Pilgrims customarily throw in a 5 Yen coin; as the hole in coin’s centre is said to allow the spirit to flow through, which means that it’s particularly fortuitous to offer. If donations are a measure of faith, then Buddha had good reason to smile that day. In place of the usual 80 centimeter collection box, the year I attended the monks built a moat the size of a swimming pool before the shrine, by digging a large hole and covering it in plastic – at least 25 metres wide and 3 metres deep. Coins flew through the air to reach the moat, which by mid morning, was already holding piles of coins. To my surprise, it wasn’t only the humble 5 Yen coin flying into the pool. It was vast amounts of denominations and even notes. Fair enough, I thought. The shrine needs to survive, make restorations, feed the needy.

Later, I was fascinated by an elaborate ceremonial drum and watched as people queued to ring it, grasping the heavy club in both hands to swing with enough force to elicit a resounding echo of sound. It looked like fun, so I thought I’d queue to have a go.

A giant ceremonial drum from Japan

I was most politely told that banging the drum would cost 20 Thousand Yen. I was amazed. Then I watched closely and saw much, much more money being handed over for the honor. The drum rang and rang. In my mind, it became associated with the cost, so I continually rang up the funds accumulated like the singing of a cash register. Perhaps it’s my materialism, I thought. Then I noticed that groups of men wearing black, and sporting tightly sprung punch perms, had started to arrive and were raining money into the temple like they were handing out lollies. I’d been in Japan long enough to know that that perm, and those clothes, were the uniform de rigour of the Yakuza.

It was then that I realized I didn’t understand a thing about what was going on, and just why so much cash was flying through the air, nor what the Yakuza were doing smiling fist fulls of cash to the monks.

I was reminded of those Japan voyages this weekend when I read the Life & Arts section of the Financial Times. James Anderlini, the FT’s Beijing bureau chief, detailed his lunch with Shi Yongxin— the abbot of Shaolin Temple in China — famous for Kung Fu. Shi Yongxin, says Anderlini, has been criticized for his commercial initiatives. In his time at the Temple, Yongxin has overseen the creation of the Henan Shaolin Temple Industrial Development Company (1998), and has the distinction of spearheading the registration of the trademark, the first religious group in China to do so.

James Ferguson's portrayal of the abbot

“We’re using legal and commercial means to protect our intellectual property, protect our brand and protect our own inheritance,” Yongxin said in the article. The Shaolin Temple by all accounts is doing better business than what I witnessed in Japan, as it’s busy with tourists year round, not just on New Year’s Day. The abbot’s branding endeavors have attracted not only international attention, but the favor of the China government.

“We attract a lot of visitors and students so the government awarded me a car to encourage me to do a better job,” the abbot explained, when questioned about his new VW. He also says the IPad and Samsung mobile phone he often uses were gifts from devotees. A far cry from the image of the non-material, he says in his defense; “I’m not doing what I do for other people but for society, for the masses; it’s not for me personally or for the local government but if there is a need in society or among ordinary folk, then I should do what I can.”

This new found business acumen in Buddhism’s leadership, combined with what appears to be an acceptance of the material, must have a trickle down effect to the every day devotee. Behaviors displayed in religious leaders, even more so than business leaders, are emulated by those below. Which explains, but doesn’t lesson the spectacle of, four monks doing a spot of shopping in Chanel, Times Square Hong Kong. In early July this year my husband watched somewhat incredulously as robed monks carried cosmetics purchases in logo bags out of the Chanel shop without a hint of embarrassment.

Do you think this is an isolated incident? I did too. Then, two weeks ago, while walking the Avenue Of The Stars in Tsim Sha Tshui, I saw four monks, all obviously tourists. Two were carrying cameras, one of which was a brand new top of the range Canon digital with a vibrant logo strap. I was fascinated watching him as he shot photo after photo of the Hong Kong skyline, himself so picturesque as his robes billowed in the breeze. I refrained from photographing him. Again, there in front of me, was something I didn’t understand. Hadn’t he taken an oath to live life simply, I wondered? Didn’t he believe in living life absolutely present in the moment, like the monks I met creating sand mandalas, meditating on the transient nature of beauty? So why did this monk need a photograph? And why did his companion need Coca-Cola?

A monk builds a sand mandala in a public display on the semi-permanence of life

Anderlini asked Yongxin how he responds to the critics that say he is too fond of mixing the sacred with the profane. “Our aim is to promote Buddhist culture, to baptize human souls and purify people’s minds. What we have done so far (in terms of commercialization) is actually quite conservative because we don’t want to get too mixed up in the affairs of society or over exploit Shaolin Temple.”

His example of this ‘moderation’ is telling. The FT states that the abbot described how a proposal in 2009 by the local government to list the temple on the domestic or international stock exchange was abandoned after he and other monks voiced strong objections. So it appears that there is a limit, some sense of restraint, in the leadership. Ironically, what seems to be lacking, is self awareness.

Are Buddhist leaders unaware of the impact the acceptance of gifts, daily business dealings, and the concept of branding is having on their followers, or how that is perceived by the average citizen when they witness, say, a Chanel loving robed monk? Unfortunately, as the religion’s leaders move with modernity, something of their unique and heartfelt message is getting lost.

The abbot says he hopes to improve society, and decrease the impact of a world where desires continually grow, but if he isn’t careful, he’ll be needing a PR firm to help out soon.

“We wish everyone could lead a simple life like us monks and not chase after famous brands and luxury lifestyles in the way the awful nouveau riche in our country do,” Yongxin said, delivering a great message that should be embodied in all of the Buddhist figureheads’ actions,  ingrained in the culture and lived out in principle — if the Buddhist religion is to continue blossoming smiles of enlightenment, rather than smiles of entertainment.


2 thoughts on “Big Buddha, Big Bucks

  1. Great piece! Totally agree. When I was little, I recall being completely amazed by the scene of a plain robed monk talking on a Nokia mobile phone whilst walking outside the famous Hanshan Temple in Suzhou, China. That was back in the days when mobile penetrations were low and Nokia phones were trendy.

    • Thanks BB. I’m regularly surprised here in Hong Kong. Just last week after this post entry I saw more monk tourists along the same strip of land, each with really bright brand new nike’s on their feet poking out the bottom of their robes. I don’t usually notice branding in this way, but when you sit at a restaurant and a monk comes by for alms, I really have to wonder where that money is going, or if indeed they really are monks at all.

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